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Tobi Saulnier, PhD: Melding Science and Creativity

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What came first, the chicken or the egg? This riddle has been a part of Tobi Saulnier’s inquisitive nature since she was five years old and, with an electricity kit, learned to make an electromagnet with some wire and a nail. The project was her first taste of the magic of science.

Today, the founder and CEO of 1st Playable Productions, based in Troy, New York, uses her creativity and quest for adventure daily to create unique, groundbreaking and awesome games for well-known multimedia corporations.

A Scientist at Heart
As a young girl, Tobi lived in Delhi, a rural upstate New York village a couple of hours down I-88 and over a mountain, as she describes. “My dad was a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute grad who was a popular professor at the SUNY college there, and my mom was a home Montessori teacher before she returned to school to join the museum field,” Tobi explained. “I had many childhood inspirations, ranging from teachers who encouraged me to friends who shared their rural life with me. My love of the outdoors and community definitely stems from those experiences.”

She earned her BS, MS and PhD in electrical engineering at her dad’s alma mater, RPI. She had been accepted into California Institute of Technology and Clarkson University, but she’s very happy she followed the legacy. She started her career in research and development in computer networks and embedded and distributed systems at General Electric Research and Development. There she led initiatives in new product development, software quality, business strategy and outsourcing, acquiring the business skills to make 1st Playable Productions successful.

Inspired by Disney Princesses
“We make videogames with a focus on games applied to education, medical and other applications that truly change minds. Our talented staff includes game designers, artists, software engineers and instructional designers,” she noted. “We work with brand creators and managers at entertainment companies such as Disney and Nickelodeon, and we collaborate with curricular and subject matter experts at other organizations new to games. A lot of our work comes down to being good communicators and problem solvers.”

She first worked with Disney while at Vicarious Visions, another Capital District, New York, company, and they were the client for the second game she signed at 1st Playable. She enjoyed the fact that they had a strong and positive team that included many women at the time, and there was a need for quality developers who could hit schedules and accommodate strong brand needs. “I especially enjoy movie games, as there is always some last-minute adventure that you need to solve, plus my team genuinely loves Disney Princesses!” Tobi revealed.

Beyond STEM
When asked about her passion for science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM, she smiled. “I inherently love many STEM topics. Even the areas I didn’t find that exciting in school I always find fascinating once I dive in and learn about something in order to create a game. Sometimes I think the way we teach STEM now loses the excitement we got when we worked with so-called dangerous or unexpected results in chemistry or biology,” she continued. “To be fair, I am passionately interested in many things, not just STEM. It’s my nature to be curious and excited about learning.”

As the game industry is in constant change due to the rapid pace of technology and market evolution, she feels that as soon as they master one technology or business model they have to learn another. She knows that one constant throughout is the need for creative, multidisciplinary problem solving and proactive customer service.

“In the entertainment side of the business, we are entering an era in which middle schoolers can and do make their own games. Game creation is becoming more like video creation, where you see YouTube video makers and mainstream movies at different ends of the spectrum cost-wise. There’s a high degree of chance as to whether any particular video or movie will make money. In the applied side of videogames, we are just beginning to really tap the potential. I see a lot of growth there and a continued need for professionals,” she reiterated.

Leadership and Community
She asserts her organization is informal by design, which helps create more opportunities for employees to gain experience and leadership skills. The company’s organization is “flat,” in that she sits alongside her employees, with very little hierarchy in communication and information. “My biggest challenge is providing just enough structure for the times or people that need structure,” she shared.

Let’s return to the chicken or the egg question. Tobi and her husband have up-close contact with chickens and goats on their small homestead in Glenmont. They recently moved there from another property in East Greenbush due to encroaching development. Their son is a sophomore at RPI and their daughter is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. “I see my farm passions as being a subconscious balance of wanting to stay immersed in nature and the outdoors despite my computer-focused profession. The soap opera of the animals and their misadventures and my daily chores act as an antidote to business stresses. It re-centers me, even when farming does bring its heartaches and frustrations,” she expressed, adding, “By the way, chickens are hilarious!”

She deems herself a serial hobbyist, and she dives in head first and learns all sorts of new activities such as jewelry making, gardening, felting and candy making. She is currently trying her hand at homemade pasta. As an involved community member, she contributes time as a board member to organizations that will help the future, including miSci, the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady; Woodland Hill Montessori School; the Daily Gazette; and Proctors.

Transformation through Technology
Tobi has a goal of making the future better through the products she and her staff work on, the organizations she supports and the positive impact they have on people around her. “At a really basic level, I believe the 1st Playable employees are leaders of the future and their positive experiences will influence their future leadership styles and accomplishments. On the product side, I am excited about the potential of games to transform fields ranging from education to wellbeing,” she reflected. “And even my homesteading efforts are partly motivated by wanting to learn and pass along farming knowledge.”

Her advice to women hoping to realize their dreams of owning their own company is to practice curiosity and involvement. “Ask lots of questions; volunteer for extra tasks and initiatives; get active with community organizations where you can practice leadership and business skills. Companies and markets are like living organisms and it helps to understand how everything is interconnected and works together as a system. I never had a dream of owning my own company, but the time came and it seemed like someone had to step up, and I had prepared enough that I was able to try.”

With a present filled with princesses, science, goats, chickens and initiative, the future looks bright for this forward-thinking entrepreneur. ■

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